8 April 2022

Kwasi Kwarteng is wrong: ‘Imposing infrastructure on people’ is what government is there for

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It’s rare that a politician gives a quote which perfectly encapsulates the deep problems with how Britain is governed. But in a recent interview with Radio 4, Kwasi Kwarteng managed it.

The Business Secretary was being pressed, rightly, on how realistic the Government’s current plans for renewing Britain’s energy infrastructure actually are. It’s all very well aspiring to this or that but, the presenter asked, what do you do if (when) people object?

Does there come a time when a responsible minister has to face down the whips, the backbenchers, and indeed the Little Whingeing Residents Association, and just announce that something is being built, for the good of the nation?

Apparently not, for here is Kwarteng’s reply:

“So unlike other countries, we can’t simply impose infrastructure on people if they don’t want it and that’s a really important democratic principle.”

The whole problem in one sentence: that the Government cannot or will not build necessary infrastructure if it displeases local rent-seekers.

The implication in ‘unlike other countries’ is that this is a feature of places such as China, who don’t have to bother with niceties like elections or the rule of law. But there are better-functioning countries that manage to combine democracy with getting important infrastructure built. The idea that kowtowing to Nimbys is an important democratic principle, rather than a catastrophic failure of governance is nothing more than a sad pretence.

Indeed, one of the most important functions of central government, in fact arguably its essential purpose, is taking a big-picture view of the interests of the entire nation and imposing settlements which serve those interests.

This role can be counter-balanced in various ways – democratically electing the central government, a federal system with entrenched rights for sub-state units, etc. – in different times and places. But the essential role is what it is.

What Kwarteng is describing is the abdication of that role. Essential infrastructure (and that includes houses) can’t be built because everywhere they might be built, there is a local majority, or often merely a very vocal local minority, which insists that it should not be built in their patch.

That is not an ‘important democratic principle’. It is a rent-seekers’ charter. It allows homeowners to bank the proceeds of a dysfunctional property market and push the costs onto other; it allows communities to benefit from being part of the UK without making the sacrifices necessary for the UK to be prosperous and secure.

Such a system is not an important part of a modern democracy. Our discretionary planning system, like our NHS, is not replicated overseas. The French seem not to find life intolerable because they can’t ban their governments from building the TGV or the homes the next generation need.

And to return to Kwarteng’s interview, it does call into question the viability of the Government’s new energy policy. An 80-seat majority wasn’t enough to save planning reform; the Transport Secretary is busy calling in and blocking projects from regional airports to housing developments.

What reason have we to think it will deliver here? Boris Johnson has already u-turned on onshore wind, and there are fears that Rolls Royce’s new Small Modular Reactors (an alternative to big, traditional nuclear plants) will be scuppered because they need to be built near the homes they serve.

None of this is Kwarteng’s fault, apart from maybe the unnecessary pretence that the local veto built into our planning system by Clement Attlee is valuable or virtuous. The system is what it is. It would take a government of iron will and great courage to try and change it, and he manifestly does not serve in one.

If the Conservatives deserved their reputation for a cold and ruthless focus on power, they would have made some tough decisions about where building needed to happen years ago. With a majority this large, they could have struck deals to protect most of the Shires whilst concentrating development in areas whose MPs they can afford to alienate.

Instead, the Tories seem determined to cave to all comers – including Liberal Democrat MPs, in the case of Luton Airport’s expansion – and sacrifice the party’s long-term prospects (not to mention the nation’s) for the sake of saving a few favoured MPs come the next general election.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.